Sharper Iron (blog), 17.10.2008
If you have read anything about American or British church history, you undoubtedly have read something about the impact and influence of John Wesley, the great evangelist. He is often given credit for starting the Methodist movement while in college at Oxford, which was known in its earliest stages as the Holy Club. Men such as George Whitefield, the famous evangelist of the first Great Awakening in America, and William Williams, the Welsh pastor and hymn writer of "Guide Me, 0 Thou Great Jehovah," were members of this infant society. This group of men left an indelible impact upon the world and history for the sake of Christ and His kingdom. One man, though, is often overlooked in his involvement as a preacher and traveling evangelist in England during the 1700s. He stands, like the apostle Andrew, in the shadow of his more well-known brother. Many of us sing his hymns on a regular basis, and they are known throughout the churches of our Savior around the world. I speak of Charles Wesley.
John R. Tyson, a professor of theology at Houghton College, has a particular interest in early Methodism. He has written Charles Wesley on SanctifIcation. A Biowaphical and Theological Study (1986), Invitation to Christian Spirituali An EcumenicalAntholoj (1999), Charles Wesley. A Reader (2000), In the Midst of Ear/v Methodism: Lady Huntingdon and Her Correspondence (2006), and most recently Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley (2008). It is this last book to which I draw your attention.
This is not your standard, run-of-the-mill biography. Writing with the reader in mind, Tyson has a writing style that is both enjoyable and informative. Throughout the book, he incorporates the times in Charles’s life and the reasons for which he wrote his hymns. This alone would make this book valuable for anyone interested in hymn history. Including information of this sort makes this book stand above the relatively few biographies wholly devoted to the life of Charles Wesley.
Tyson begins his biography by dealing with the home life of Charles when he was a boy. He compares Charles’s personality to that of his father, Samuel Wesley. "He was impetuous, short-tempered, and given to outbursts of feeling" (p. 6). Throughout the work, Tyson masterfully brings out this aspect of Charles’s personality, such as in his relationship with his brother, John. In a chapter titled "A Partnership Strained," Tyson reveals the nature of their more than fifty-year ministry together. He asks the question, "What was it about Charles that made him so pliable to his brother John’s will?" (p. 172). He states many reasons, the first being that John was the older brother by five years. He quotes a friend of the Wesley brothers, John Gambold: "I never observed any person have a more real deference for another, than [Charles] had for his brother. . . . He followed his brother entirely. Could I describe one of them, I should describe them both" (p. 172). The second reason Charles was so pliable, Tyson brings out, is that they were complete opposites in their emotional makeup. "Charles recognized that he was a compliant person who hated confrontation" (p. 172). In a letter to his wife, Sally, Charles says, "You know my principle. I sacrifice all, even my own brother, to peace and quietness. Rather than hazard a quarrel I would run away from every human creature, excepting you" (p. 172). This reveals that Charles recognized his own frailty and battled with it.
In many instances Charles did not back down from confrontation, despite this frailty. One case was in John’s desire to marry. Charles intervened in a potential marriage between John and a woman named Grace Murray, due to Grace’s "low birth" (p. 176). Charles, along with George Whitefield, served as a witness to Grace Murray’s marriage to another man. This act severely strained their relationship as brothers, let alone their ministry together. John, being determined to marry, set his affections on Molly Vazeille, courted her, and finally married her. From the start, Charles recognized problems. Charles, his wife, Sally, and Molly never got along. Charles, in writing to his wife, often referred to Molly in a sarcastic manner as "my best friend" (p. 183). This strain between the brothers lasted more than two decades, many times almost reaching a breaking point.
Another case of Charles’s not backing down in the face of opposition was in the well-known battles raging around Calvinistic doctrine. Tyson borrows a phrase from Charles’s writings to entitle a chapter "The Poison of Calvin." Some statements that stand out are as follows:
-Wesley was repulsed by the haughty pride he saw in some of those who had come to consider themselves "the elect" (p. 102).
-Charles wrote about his wife, Sally, bewailing the practical effects of a friend pressing the doctrine of predestination among unawakened souls: "To urge that doctrine on unawakened souls, is to stop them at the very threshold and to infuse it into those who are a little convinced, is, to drive them either into presumption or despair" (p. 102).
-On November 30, Charles expounded the Scripture lesson from Hebrews 6, a passage that seems to teach that a person committing apostasy can lose his salvation. As Charles spoke, however, several of the pillars (formerly faithful members) of his congregation began to rail against him. Wesley wrote of them, "The poison of Calvin has drunk up their spirit of love" (p. 104).
The conflict impacted the dearest friendship between Charles and George Whitefield. There was growing concern between the Wesley brothers about Whitefield’s preaching on predestination. Charles had been in constant contact with Mr. Whitefield, emphasizing the need in the Methodist societies for "mutual forbearance, long-suffering, and love through this controversy" (p. 106). Yet in the year 1739 "the Wesleys published John’s sermon in a pamphlet entitled Free Grace as an antidote to predestination and to countermand the claims that they were preaching ’free will" (p. 102). Along with this published pamphlet, Charles wrote a hymn of thirtysix verses titled "Universal Redemption." This act spurred Whitefield to write a letter to the brothers containing a rebuke to Charles:
Why did you in particular, my dear brother Charles, affix your hymn, and join in putting out your late hymn book? How can you say you will not dispute with me about election, and yet print such hymns, and your brother send his sermon over against election to. . . America? Do you not think, my dear brethren, I must be as much concerned for truth, or what I think truth, as you? (p. 107)
Whitefield would later write to John, complaining that "dear brother Charles is more and more rash. He has lately printed some very bad hymns" (p. 108).
This is but a small portion of John Tyson’s book Assist Me to Proclaim: The Life and Hymns of Charles Wesley. This work provides many heart-warming chapters, not the least of which is Tyson’s chapter "My Dearest Sally" on the love between Charles and Sally, his wife. It is truly a picture of Ephesians 5:22-33. Tyson also delves into Charles’s tenacity to remain faithful to the Church of England his whole life. In Charles’s own words, he would "live and die in the Church of England" (p. 229).
I recommend this book to avid fans of church history and to those who have never read anything about Charles Wesley. Professor Tyson has done a great service to church history and the contemporary church in writing Assist Me to Proclaim. He does a masterful job in bringing Charles Wesley "back to life."